We HEART Regina Spektor:
The New York singer is confusing critics, snubbing comparisons and stealing hearts … namely ours.
Words: Robert Brink / Missbehave, Autumn 2006
Bronx-bred singer Regina Spektor is headlining a gig in Portland, Oregon. It's one of the weirdest she's ever played. The bizarre, half hippy, half-corporate crowd reminds the 26 year-old of White Plains, New York. Maybe Westchester. Spektor feels like she's being observed. She probably is.
“I think it's like the pot capital of America or something, right?” says Spektor of Portland, “Maybe everyone was just high and withdrawn and sitting there spaced out. I'm curious to go back there and play again,” she muses, clearly deriving enjoyment from the act of performing itself, not just the response. For her, a lackluster audience is a no-lose situation. “I'll just start playing for myself really. You have a room, you have a piano and you get to sing your songs,” she reasons. “I'd be doing it in my bedroom without anyone else there anyway.”
When sung in Spektor's child-like voice, New-York specific lyrics like “Hey, remember that time when I found a human tooth on Delancey” or “Summer in the city, means cleavage, cleavage, cleavage…” sound dreamy and innocent. Her breathy, ethereal way of articulating sounds as if she sings with a mouthful of hot food. Currently on her second US headlining tour to promote her latest release Begin To Hope, slated for release on Sire Records this past June; Spektor is grateful for the opportunity to make music. And it shows. Whether in the moody black-keyed baroque of “Après Moi” with it's dramatic French phrases (Après Moi, La Dèluge) and string instruments or the decisive strutting tempo and tone of “Hotel Song”, the singer is thorough with her metaphors and does not let each orchestrated mood meander. Spektor is in control and this intention persists in her live performances.
“Every time you play a show, it's like building your own world,” Spektor says in her characteristically fantastic vernacular, “You get to a place and look around and bring in your equipment and sound check. For an hour and a half you get to build a little world for these people who are coming. Being an opening act is more like giving someone your business card. It's like ‘Here's five different things that I do, please call me!' It's really weird.”
Regina was born in Moscow—a tiny girl with ringlet hair and bold blue eyes. You can envision her youth, little feet dangling from a too-high piano bench or later, fluttering around the NYC apartment at nine years old. Ever the musician, Spektor transformed pedestrian things into makeshift "instruments," banging on stools and boxes since her beloved piano had been sold to help finance her family's emigration to the States.
As her love of music was culled from youth, her vivid, uninhibited imagination evident in her lyrics is also that of a young child. “I just make stuff up,” Spektor states simply. “I consciously pay attention to life. I try to write songs the way a short story writer writes.” Therein lies her musical charm—intricately spun tales of ordinary things told in a not-so-ordinary manner sang in a voice intimate enough for bedtime stories.
Spektor hasn't always had the opportunity for such intimacy. She's been the businesscard-like opener plenty of times. “There was like two years where I didn't turn down a show,” she says of playing comedy clubs, parties and basements. She's even pulled the occasional hustle to get on stage, convincing club owners she had a show booked with them, when, in reality, she hadn't.
It was such shiest that landed her first live gig at Manhattan's Sidewalk Cafe. The show culminated in a record deal and eventually Spektor found herself on tour with New York demagogues the Strokes and the Followill family foursome, Kings of Leon. Spektor's charm has not swayed everyone. The critics repeatedly liken her to Fiona Apple, Tori Amos, Billie Holiday, Joni Mitchell, Bjork, Suzanne Vega, Kate Bush, Norah Jones and basically every other female that has stood on a stage solo. “The weird thing is, I don't think Kate Bush sounds like Billie Holiday at all,” muses Spektor and rightly so. “[And] where do Nina Simone and Tori Amos come in together, ya know?”
Spektor doesn't begrudge the critics' need to classify or lump together. She is however, saddened that such comparisons often demystify or hamper the newness of something. “Young musicians will be like, ‘You should listen to my stuff.' And you just kind of ask them for a feeling of it. And they'll just drop like seven names of bands: ‘Well it's sort of like a more Goth blah, blah, but if you mix it with a bit of Genesis.' And I'm like, ‘Oh my God, you just totally classified yourself. How are you supposed to write other stuff now?'”
Last year's Soviet Kitsch, was her third and breakthrough album, for which she embarked on her first-ever headlining tour to support. The cabaret-ish and esoteric Kitsch won the affection of many, but had some critics reacting less than optimistically—going so far as to underestimate the mental capacity of the listener. One review states, "The sheer uniqueness of Soviet Kitsch definitely catches listeners off guard. Her roughly unprocessed voice both scares and entrances audiences, as it is frightening…Right when the audience thinks it has got the album figured out, the next track begins and listeners are sent back into confusion."
“Yeah, [the review goes on] about how “scary” I am,” bristles Spektor of the reception. “A friend of mine was saying how record reviews are like, the critics' chance to write their great novel, ya know? Like, ‘On a dark and rainy day I put in this song and…'”
Spektor's latest effort, Begin To Hope, though likely not above such critics' reproach, is as uniquely darling as her previous releases. Despite a less eclectic, more produced and radio-friendly sound, Hope can be your binge eating or Prozac. The music is comforting. The kaleidoscope of elicited emotions run the gamut from happiness to wallowing but not, as the singers she's oft compared to, to the point of self-indulgence. Her tone whilst singing or speaking is inviting.
Spektor's infectious impishness does not end with her voice. Spektor is just as winsome visually. With full lips, fine features and expressive wide eyes she eventually plans on dominating other media. “I love acting and definitely want to get into it,” she says. “When I see that MGM lion in the beginning of a movie, I get the best feelings of anticipation. I know that for the next two hours a world is being built for me.”
Despite her desire to become the bold-name stereotype—the double threat, Spektor is focused. “I don't want to be a dabbler. I really hope if I do things like acting or theater that, I'll be surrounded by people I can learn with and do it well.”
And do it well she will. Spektor possesses a coy, untainted, playful countenance that disarms spite or criticism. It's a rare breed of asshole that can bash a cherub. And though not nearly as disengaged as her Portland audience, I once was ambivalent and ended won over, in the little world Regina built.